Nearly everybody who went to secondary school remembers being peer-pressured into something—pranks, parties, or cutting class. It’s a time when people tend to be at their most insecure, and conscious of what others think of them. That spills over into decisions about the future: some students make poor decisions about their education because they’re worried about how peers will perceive them.
Depending on the context, the rate at which students sign up for SAT prep can be dramatically different, according to a new NBER working paper. Students showed that they’re willing to turn down a free course just because their classmates would find out.
The researchers offered free access to an online SAT prep course (that normally costs $200) to juniors at large Los Angeles high schools, making the sign up list public within some classes, and private in others. The study was done in low-income, low-performing schools, making the decision potentially more significant, both economically and academically.
In non-honors classes, when the sign-ups were made public, participation dropped by 11%. It had no visible effect on students in honors classes.
To net out the possibility that honors and non-honors students might have different characteristics or priorities, the authors limited part of the study to students who take two honors classes, so that the researchers would catch some in non-honors classes as well.
In that case, the students presented with the choice in the honors class were 25% more likely to sign up if the decision was public. Those who were in a non-honors class were 25% less likely to sign up.
The overall public sign-up rate for these students was 47% when they were in their honors class. Social pressure is dramatically different in different contexts:
The only difference was one word of language in the offer for the course:
“Your decision to sign up for the course will be kept completely private from everyone, except the other students in the room.”
“Your decision to sign up for the course will be kept completely private from everyone, including the other students in the room.”
It’s about popularity: visible effort can have negative social consequences in some cases. The perception of popularity really matters. Students who say popularity is important are more likely to move along with the prevailing social pressure.
The authors did a previous study (pdf) in a school that introduced a point system and leaderboard for performance in computer-based courses required for low-performing students. The top three performers were shown to the whole class. The result was a major decline in performance for those closest to being among the top three.
It just goes to show how powerful social pressure is. This is just test prep, but throughout a student’s career there are so many opportunities to raise a hand, seek extra help, or participate in class that are public. Over time, avoiding them can have a significant effect.